This is an article for any big head like me, about how Saint David and the desert fathers teach us the value of humiliation.
I’ve just got back from a day spent in beautiful south Wales, in the lovely town of Llanelli. I was there visiting the base of World Horizons, the movement of which Kel and I are a part, and who are in many ways another family for us.
Of course when you meet up with people who you havent seen for a few months, one question that often gets asked is along the lines of: ‘so how are things going for you’ or similar. And I found my aggregated reply quite telling – I found myself saying that things were ‘bitty’. By which I mean that I seem to be doing lots of little things, a number of bits and pieces, rather than any one ‘big’ or ‘significant’ project. This troubles me because I find great self worth in being involved in something big, I also find I can lose myself in a project and let it take over my life for a while.
But in considering this on the return journey and again this morning, I realise that in fact a big project is as much a trap as a blessing. The first clue is that I derive so much self worth from bigness. I shouldnt be getting self worth from accomplishment, I shouldnt be looking to acheivements for my self esteem, surely that should come from the secure knowledge of being loved by others, and by God, and by being at peace with myself – not by acheivements.
I am often encouraged by the wisdom of our forerunners, many of whom have been elevated to saint-hood, one of them being that radical vegetarian – Dewi Sant, or Saint David. I dont just like him because he didnt eat meat by the way, although that’s a good start.
Saint David died in about 589 AD, his last recorded words were from a talk he gave in which he instructed his followers: ‘Gwnewch y pethau bychain’ or ‘to do the little things’ they had seen him do. For David the key to living a righteous and good life was not to involve oneself in a uber project, but to continue to do small things with great love.
What this comes down to I think, is humility.
I was struck recently by the link between humility, and humiliation. The latter, I realised can be the process of the forming of humilty. So often we look upon humiliation, the process by which we are brought low, to the ground in fact, as a negative process. For me, at times, to have to admit that in fact right now, as I speak, I have no grand project, no big scheme underway or taking off is a bit humiliating. I am brought low by my own admission. But rather than be downcast by this, the best thing to do is to recognise the importance of being willing to accept my own unimportance, my own insignificance, and to learn to be loved and be at peace in that situation.
Very often I hear preachers or other Christians saying: ‘God’s got big things for you,’ or ‘you are important’. Perhaps instead of trying to base our feelings of self worth in the notion that we are important or have significant tasks to acheive, we should accept that we may only have little things to do, but these little unimportant things are weirdly as important as anything else we can be given.
I think it was the legendary Antony of Egypt (if I’m wrong I apologise) who is credited as saying:
“I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said: ‘What can get through from such snares?’
“Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.’”
So often we get caught up in the need for recongition and acceptance through our acheivements or accomplishments that we lose that elemental need for humility. We need instead to accept that our lives are full of often insignificant, even inconsequential actions. In learning to be at peace with our own unimportance we can become the people we should be.
So yeah, my life at the moment is bitty, yes I will continue to struggle with that, but I also recognise the great personal value that such a life can hold. It will keep me from pride, and from having too high an opinion of my abilities and myself.
In a way I suppose, its a bit like fasting, it requires an element of self control. But sometimes the act or process of fasting itself can be a ‘big project’ in and of itself, so perhaps we need to heed the words of John Cassian who taught that control over the stomach, which in many ways is the very physical counterpart of the soul, is less to do with fasting and more to do with simple self control:
“A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.”
Maybe this needs to be applied not just to food, but to everything we involve ourselves in.